Can You Ace GRE Quant if You’re Bad at Math? (Part 1)

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Manhattan Prep GRE Blog - Can You Ace GRE Quant if You're Bad at Math? (Part 1) by Chelsey Cooley

First, let’s get on the same page about what being “bad at math” really means. In my experience, GRE students who say that they’re bad at math tend to fall into these categories:

  1. People who don’t think math is interesting or fun.
  2. People who got bad grades in math as kids—or people who got good grades, but had to work harder than everybody else.
  3. People to whom math doesn’t feel natural or intuitive.
  4. People who feel anxious about math.

Instead of saying that you aren’t a math person, get specific. Which one of those groups describes you? Or, like many of my GRE students, do you fall into more than one of those categories? The more clearly you can describe the challenge you’re facing, the more power you have over it.

People Who Don’t Think Math is Interesting or Fun

It’s fine to think that math is boring—I think Reading Comprehension is soul-crushingly boring, and I’ve managed to make a career out of teaching the GRE. Learning to enjoy the GRE will make studying more fun, but I’ve also had a lot of successful students who thought of studying for the GRE as a boring but worthwhile job—or even as an annoying obstacle.

People Who Got Bad Grades in Math as Kids

As an adult learning middle-school and high-school math for the GRE, you’re in a strange position. You’re studying things that you once learned in grade-school math class. But you’re learning them from a totally different perspective: you’re smarter, more introspective, and have access to better resources. Getting bad grades in math as a kid says a lot about your middle-school math teacher, a little about your childhood level of patience and study skills, and not much at all about your “math aptitude.”

People to Whom Math Doesn’t Feel Natural or Intuitive

The idea that math should come naturally (or not at all!) is one of the nastiest myths in modern education. Math isn’t natural, and it isn’t intuitive. There’s actually a lot of evidence—which we’ll look at later in this article—that there’s no such thing as a “math person,” at least when it comes to GRE-level math.

Most people are more or less equally equipped to learn GRE math. But some people start the GRE process with more math experience, some people start out with more math confidence, and some people start out with both. Those people who seem to “get it” right away? It’s more likely that they’re just a little more familiar with the material than you are. Maybe they use math every day in their work; maybe they had a fantastic middle-school algebra teacher.

Think about it: when teachers and parents decide that a student is “good at math,” what do they do? They give them more and harder math to work on, creating a self-perpetuating cycle. Some people end up getting a lot of positive and varied experiences with math, which strengthens their abilities even further. The rest of us fall behind and focus on other topics.

People Who Feel Anxious about Math

A lot of us have had negative experiences with bad math teachers, bad grades, or seemingly impossible math problems. More of my students seem to have math anxiety than, say, “vocabulary anxiety”—probably because of the pervasive myth that some people are doomed to suck at math. Hopefully, by examining and rejecting that myth, you’ll find your anxiety being replaced by determination. Keep reading!

Bad at Math: The Evidence

This is the point where you stop saying that you’re “bad at math.” The language you use to describe yourself, even in your own head, makes a difference. It’s fine to say that you’re scared of math, or that you dislike math, or that you haven’t taken a math class in fifteen years, or that you absolutely hated your eighth-grade Algebra teacher. Those are facts! “Bad at math,” though, is a myth—here’s some evidence to prove that.

Here’s a chart summarizing the math performance of 15-year-olds around the world in 2012. If high-school math was always intuitive for some of us, and counterintuitive for others, we’d expect to see similar rates of high- and low-performers regardless of location. But the chart makes it clear that some ways of teaching and learning make almost everybody “good at math,” while other ways work for almost nobody. (So, why not sign up for GRE Math in a Day?)

There’s a common misconception, although fortunately it’s becoming less common as time goes on, that girls are naturally more likely to be bad at math than boys. But there are strong arguments to be made that this gap is completely explained by other factors, and when some of those factors are mitigated—as in single-sex schools—the gap begins to disappear.  

Twin studies have tried to determine whether mathematical ability is genetic. Here’s a study that leans more towards the “bad at math” side than what we’ve looked at so far. On the one hand, it suggests that genetics makes a “moderate” contribution to math ability at age 10. On the other hand, differences in mathematical ability due to social factors tend to be smaller for elementary school students than for older students—it’s possible that with older students, the pattern would change.

Finally, here’s one of my favorite articles addressing the “bad at math” issue. It contains a great description of where the “bad at math” myth comes from, and it’s worth a read just for that. It also introduces the idea that your beliefs about math influence how well you perform. People who believe that math ability can be improved, will improve! People who believe that they’re stuck where they are, won’t.

So, as you start or continue your GRE Quant studies, strive to convince yourself that you can get better at math. That belief alone may be enough to improve your performance. And remember that while you may feel anxious towards math or may dislike math, that won’t stop you from improving your Quant score. Want to know how to get better at Quant when you’re math-phobic? That’s coming up in the next article. 📝


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Chelsey CooleyChelsey Cooley Manhattan Prep GRE Instructor is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Seattle, Washington. Chelsey always followed her heart when it came to her education. Luckily, her heart led her straight to the perfect background for GMAT and GRE teaching: she has undergraduate degrees in mathematics and history, a master’s degree in linguistics, a 790 on the GMAT, and a perfect 170Q/170V on the GRE. Check out Chelsey’s upcoming GRE prep offerings here.

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